By: Aaron Lai
August 14, 2015
As of this week, I have officially been writing for APH Networks for two years now. I have to say it has been an enjoyable time, and I have learned a lot since my initial article of the FSP Raider 550W. I still remember when I began, I specifically told Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Kwan I would only review peripherals until I had a build of my own. As I was running with a Lenovo IdeaPad Y470, it was hard for me to review hardware like RAM, solid state drives, or computer cases without having an actual desktop to test with. Thankfully, I now have a desktop, and I have the ability to review all kinds of computer hardware. However, I still like returning to what I started with. Products such as mice, keyboards, and headsets may be tedious to review, but I enjoy reviewing them, because these are the products you use directly and daily. Products such as storage options or motherboards are definitely crucial for any build, but peripherals are the electronics you hold and feel, providing input and output right back to you. Therefore, a great product will be called great immediately because your senses are immediately notified and satisfied, whether through hearing or feeling. On the other hand, a bad product's flaws are very telling. Sure, peripherals may not necessarily be the most fundamental part of a computer, but any user will generally want a good performing mouse and keyboard attached to their rig. Today, we return to my second favorite peripheral, the mechanical keyboard. While the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum may look like an ordinary mechanical keyboard, there are actually quite a few things that set it apart from the ordinary. What are these things, you ask? Well, read on to find out!
Today's review unit of the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum arrived from Tesoro Technology's American offices down in Fremont, California. This was delivered in a slightly longer corrugated cardboard box, just large enough to fit the keyboard. Thankfully, the shipping container was dent and hole free, which meant it took a relatively safe trip as USPS delivered it to the 49th parallel. From the boarder, Canada Post took a hold of this container and got it to our APH Networks location here in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to the scuff free box, inside the container was filled to the brim with foam packing peanuts. Otherwise, there is not much else to note, so let us take a closer look at the keyboard itself.
But wait, there is more! Inside the shipping box is the retail container for the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum. I have to say, unlike the glamour and fanciness I have observed from the Tesoro Tizona or the Durandal Ultimate, the Excalibur Spectrum is quite a bit toned down. Utilizing their black coloring theme, Tesoro seems to have saved most of the color for the keyboard itself, but you will see why in a second. In addition, this looks like a similar box to the Lobera Spectrum. It is good to see Tesoro finally making their boxes more similar, and I hope this continues. As you can see, Tesoro's logo and the model name of the keyboard is found on the top left hand corner. The "Spectrum" designation is listed twice, once in the name, and once right below with a rainbow box behind it. The left side of the keyboard is shown on the front of the box, with the rainbow wave showing on the keyboard keys. There are some key features listed on the bottom right of the front panel. A more in depth look of the features is shown on the back too, with a diagram of the keyboard. On the top of the box, there is an indicator Tesoro has sent us the Brown switches, but blue, and red flavors are also available at this time. Oddly enough, there is an indicator for black switches being available, but the manufacturer's website says otherwise. Finally, there is a small specification sheet about the internal key switches, which are "Powered by Kailh". We will look into these switches later on in our review.
Before we continue on, let us take a look at the features and specifications, as obtained from Tesoro's website:
- 50 shades of... hey! It's glowing! - Excalibur Spectrum has unique illumination features. User is able to set backlighting colors per key, turn on wave/trigger color change modes or try other amazing effects.
- Backlighting modes - The keyboard features 7 backlighting modes: trigger, ripple, firework, radiation, breathing, wave marquee, and spectrum/full board mode. The latter means the keyboard will glow with any of 16 million colors.
- Durability and reliability - Excalibur's mechanical switches endure tens of millions actuations and do not degrade over time.
- Built-in memory - Excalibur's 512Kb of built-in memory are capable of storing up to 200 macros or 2000 keystrokes in 5 gaming profiles.
- Full N-key rollover - The keyboard's Full N-key Rollover capability is useful if the game is hot. No keystrock(sic) will come unregistered.
- Solid design - No more fancy curves. Pure austere look and performance.
- Memory: 512KB
- Profiles: 5
- Backlighting: RGB
- Lighting modes: 7
- Key lifespan: 60 million keystrokes
- Multimedia keys: 6
- Programmable keys: all
- Connection: USB
- Cable length: 1.55m
- USB ports: no
- Dimensions: 450 x 145 x 24mm (WxDxH)
Out of the box, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum is found wrapped in another bubble wrap bag, with the cable wrapped in a separate plastic wrap. In addition to the keyboard, there is a small user manual for the Excalibur Spectrum. Finally, an additional advertisement book is provided, regarding more Tesoro peripherals, such as headsets, keyboards, mice, and more. I have never really liked self-advertisements, but I can understand why manufacturers do this. Otherwise, there are no accessories included with the Excalibur. I would wish a key puller comes standard with practically all mechanical keyboards, even if it does not come with additional keycaps. This will help users clean the keyboard by making the keys easier to remove. Secondly, a removable wrist rest would be nice here, but it is not a huge omission either.
Out of all the sword-inspired names Tesoro has given their keyboards, the Excalibur is probably the most well-known to the general public. The sword was given to King Arthur by Merlin the Wizard, and it was one of the king's most prized possessions. Of course, it holds other names such as Calesvol, Kaledvoulc'h, or Caliburnus, but Tesoro probably chose the most popular name for recognition. The Welsh name for this sword, Caledfwich, means "hard cleft". According to multiple sources, the blade is engraved on both sides, "Take me up", and "Cast me away". The sword itself is said to be so bright, it could blind enemies. Other folklore say the sheath holding the Excalibur had its own powers too. For example, the one bearing the scabbard of the Excalibur would not die from blood loss due to their injuries. As for today's keyboard, I guess we will see if it actually blinds us with its 16.8M possible colors of light. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure the sheath of the Excalibur Spectrum, the bubble wrap it came in, does not have powers to stop bleeding, and so I guess this is where we will stop.
Taking a look at the keyboard itself, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum is the least outlandish design Tesoro has ever implemented for their mechanical keyboards. From the first review sample they sent us, the Tizona, I thought this company only did funkier designs, but the Excalibur takes a page from practically any classic keyboard out there. Considering it holds a name like Excalibur, I expected something a bit crazier. On the other hand, I am glad they have returned to something more conventional in terms of keyboard design. For once, it has no oddly textured surfaces, or distracting eye-catching colors. In fact, this design is even more normal than the already conservative looking Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Pro. The entire top is plastic and coated with a standard black-matte finish. The only place we see some Tesoro branding is at the top right hand side. Tesoro's slogan of "Break the Rules", which look very out of place on a keyboard that really does not break any rules, is found above the arrow keys. Overall, I really like the aesthetics of the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum. I could easily bring this keyboard to a LAN party or to work without sticking out like a sore thumb in either locations. With all the flashiness out there from every keyboard manufacturer, it is refreshing to see a down-to-earth one.
As for build quality, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum feels solid, but it does also seem to let up in a few areas. For one, there is quite a bit of flex in the keyboards frame. This does not refer to the whole keyboard flexing with every key press, as we see in cheaper laptop keyboards. However, it does mean the frame creaks with every twisting motion exerted on it. After seeing the metal backplate and solidness of the Turtle Beach Impact 700, everything else seems a little bit less than perfect. This is not to say the Excalibur Spectrum is bad, but rather speaks to the durability of the Impact 700. In the measurements, its sizing is on the smaller side of things. In fact, with maximum measurements of 450 x 145 x 43mm (W X D X H), the Excalibur is one of the more compact full-sized keyboards we have reviewed. Thankfully, this smaller size means the keyboard is relatively easy to reposition on your desk. When it comes to mass, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum weighs in around at 1.2 kg.
Our review unit of the Excalibur Spectrum is the standard QWERTY 104-key American English layout. This layout is practically the same layout we have seen for almost all our recent keyboards, with similar key sizing too. For example, the Enter key is half of its traditional size, and the backslash key is fifty percent larger than regular keys. Otherwise, the layout is quite traditional. On the top right hand side are three indicators, though there are a few differences here. Rather than the standard Num, Caps, and Scroll lock, Tesoro has removed scroll lock, and added a "Gamer Mode" indicator on the left-most side of the LEDs. This lets users know when they are in a custom profile they have made for themselves. In addition, this by default disables the Windows key, so gamers do not accidentally hit this switch, leaving them immobile and defenseless in the game. These are indicated by blue LEDs, though it would have been nice to see the same RGB lights underneath here, just to match with the rest of the profile. Under all of the function keys, we have different actions, and they are activated by pressing the "Fn" key in conjunction with a function key. F1 to F5 allow users to quickly change between their five profiles. F6 allows users to disable the Windows key. F7 to F12 are media functions, and from left to right they are Mute, Volume Down, Volume Up, Play/Pause, Previous, and Next. Other keys can be activated with the "Fn" key for other functions, which I will highlight these. For example, the Home key is used to quickly record macros, and it generally works quite well. Pause is used for switching back from a profile to PC Mode. The left and right arrow vary the backlight brightness, while the up and down arrow cycles through the backlighting options, both of which we will look at later.
One more pair of keys you can use with the Fn key are the Insert and Delete keys, which are used to select between 6KRO and NKRO. Modified from my Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Pro review, you will know NKRO is abbreviated for n-key rollover. This refers to the number of keys which are independently scanned by the hardware. The larger the number, the more key presses detected regardless of other keys being pressed at the same time. In essence, this fixes ghosting issues found in cheaper and/or laptop keyboards. While ghosting is a bit of misnomer, and at times a marketing term, there are cases where keyboards will not be able to recognize more than one keystroke at a time, which can cause for missed keys. This can be frustrating when you are playing games, or even if you are just a very fast typist. Generally, 6KRO is more than enough, as it allows users to press six keys at a time, and the keyboard will recognize all six independent strokes. However, keyboards like the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum offer NKRO, which could mean any number of independent strokes larger than six. In general, most NKRO keyboards recognize around twenty different key presses, but last time I checked, I have only ten fingers.
Before continuing on, one of the best part of the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum is its mechanical key switches. This section has been adapted from Jonathan’s Thermaltake Tt eSPORTS Meka G-Unit review in October 2011. There are three main types of keyboards in the market today. The cheapest is the membrane keyboard, which is the easiest to make, but also has poor typing feel and response due to squishy keys. A scissor switch keyboard has its own independent key switch mechanism for each key, which delivers improved tactile response and typing experience. Modern scissor switch keyboards can be very good for everyday office use. Mechanical keyboards such as the Excalibur Spectrum costs the most, because each key switch is an independent part.
The Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum features Kailh Brown mechanical switches, which are starting to get popular nowadays as an alternative to the Cherry MX. Other switches available, according to Tesoro's website, are Kailh Blue and Red, which are clones of the Cherry MX Blue and Red, but with some slight alterations. For example, Kailh actually has a higher actuation point in comparison to Cherry MX switches, and thus the distance between actuation and reset is smaller. In addition, these keys are rated to last to sixty million keystrokes; ten million more than typical Cherry MX switches. For both Kailh and Cherry MX, brown switches are what I would call a hybrid switch that accommodate both gamers and typists. They feature low resistance for typing, have a low actuation force to trigger them, but do not produce an audible ‘click’ on every key press. However, they feature non-linear travel with a tactile bump in the middle to tell you when the key has been actuated. To sum it up, the Brown switch is a more silent version of the Blue switch. Preference of which key will come down to consumer opinion.
When I first tried this keyboard, I had some expectations in mind, considering this is not my first Brown switch keyboard. My daily driver, the Cooler Master QuickFire Ultimate, is a Cherry MX Brown based product. Prior to that keyboard, I have tried various mechanical switches, from Cherry MX Reds to Blues to Blacks. It does take a while to switch between the flavors of mechanical switches, but you can get used to it. After using all these keyboards, I really do prefer the Brown switches under the hood. While there is no click feedback from the Brown switches, typing still is a joy on this keyboard, especially with the slight bump. For gaming, it produces a tad louder noise in comparison to Red switches. Of course, these are still loud when compared to other types of keyboards. As for overall quality of the Kailh switches, they are generally good. I have noticed a few times my Volume Up key would stick, which can get quite frustrating when you are adjusting your sound. This lines up with some other times I have found Kailh switches to stick slightly, but it is not a huge deal. I would still prefer if Tesoro used Cherry MX switches, but as for overall feel, the colors are practically the same between the two brands.
At the back of the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum, there is not a whole lot to make note of. For one, you will see the affixed USB cable permanently attached to the keyboard. The braided USB cable has a length of around 1.8m. The plug is gold plated too, which should not affect performance, but it looks pretty nonetheless. Some other keyboards in this category has offered extra USB connections, or even audio passthrough. While it is not necessary, it is definitely helpful for giving users a quick access to a USB port. Otherwise, there is not much else to note, so let us take a look at the bottom of the Excalibur Spectrum.
Underneath the Excalibur Spectrum, we see the base of it exposed. Once again, there are four areas padded with rubber grips, which hold the keyboard well in place without shifting around. Two flip-out risers are also found, and they have two positions when extended to allow users for different heights. The feet of the risers are also rubberized, which is very good to see. This means even when extended, the keyboard should not shift too much. Combine these facts with the under 1.2kg mass, and this keyboard will most definitely stay in place. This is pretty regular for most keyboards here, and the Excalibur Spectrum is par for the course.
As for the typing experience, in comparison to my past experience with similar Brown switches, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum seems to be the most similar to the one I use daily, the Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Ultimate. Despite being a differently branded switch, the difference between the Kailh and Cherry MX switches are minimal. All of the keys, including the ones with a stabilizer bar, feel consistent and similar to each other too. Keys for the most part do not stick, which is good to see. As I have mentioned before, there has been a few occurrences of key sticking, but it is not a serious issue. The more annoying part came when I turned on my computer. Sometimes, the keyboard would power on fully and function, and sometimes it would not work at all. This then required me to unplug and replug the keyboard back into the USB port. I have not seen this very often on many keyboards, and this is something quality control should keep in mind. Either way, I wrote majority of the review with the Excalibur Spectrum, so it was definitely comfortable enough to use for typing daily. Gaming was also a breeze on this keyboard, whether for multiplayer online battle arenas, or massively multiplayer online role playing games.
On the other hand, the lighting is where all the party pieces come out. As the keyboard is the Spectrum version of the Tesoro Excalibur, this means it comes with RGB lights. Tesoro says the full spectrum, or 16.8M colors will shine through, while the human eye may not necessarily distinguish between the color codes very close to each other. However, with the Excalibur Spectrum, there are several lighting options you can choose from. For one, there are four levels of brightness in addition to turning it off completely. In terms of different effects, there are a total of eight different lighting modes. Some are pretty standard, such as "Standard", which light up all the keys at constant brightness, as well as breathing mode and rainbow wave, which waves all of the colors across the board. There are also different modes that activate based on the key you press. Trigger mode activates the key itself. Ripple mode triggers a light that spans out to the entire keyboard, originating from the pressed key. Radiation is similar to ripple, except it only ripples out only on the row of the original pressed key. Firework mode activates the key and the eight other keys around it, and slowly fades like a firework. Finally, there is one mode which Tesoro has named "Spectrum Colors", where you can select each key and make it each its own color. From here, you can also make them either stay constantly on, breathe, or activate based on triggering the key. All in all, the modes are quite interesting to impress little boys, but they are very distracting in daily use. I am not complaining, as I am quite happy with these modes, but I wish they also included the "Audio" mode, which is found in the Tesoro Lobera Spectrum. As for the lights, they are very bright and shine quite evenly through. I do notice the lights tend to emit a cooler color temperature. What you see in the configuration software may not be the exact color you get with the lighting, but this is probably true with any RGB keyboard.
Speaking of the software, Tesoro's utility can be found and downloaded from their website. The top bar shows all the different profiles, which is five plus the PC mode. I should note users can only create macros in the profile mode, but unfortunately the profile modes automatically disable the Windows key without any way to re-enable it. Going through the eight buttons below the keyboard layout, there is the macro setting, key assignment, launch program, sync program, disable, default, illumination, and lighting effects. Macro setting is pretty obvious, and allows users to create macros to be activated by any key of their choice. As there are no additional macro keys, users will have to replace current keys with new functionality. Key assignment let users reassign single keys to do different things. Launch program is similar to key assignment, except it allows users to... launch programs. SYNC Program is a strange tab, which presumably allows users to resynchronize programs. Disable allows users to disable keys, and default returns the key to the factory settings. Illumination allows users to change the base color used for backlighting. Finally, lighting effects allow users to change to different lighting effects as mentioned in the prior paragraph. On the right side are five extra buttons, which allows you to export and import your settings, save and exit the program, exit without saving, and apply settings without closing the application.
From a software engineering standpoint, this utility is definitely not the best we have seen. For one, it is unpolished, and leaves me desiring something better. For example, if you click on one of the aforementioned buttons, an error sound is emitted every time you click outside the corresponding popup box without any reason. Users may wonder why it is reporting an error sound, even though nothing is actually wrong. Secondly, the overall layout is quite unintuitive. Why they would separate macros from key assignments and launching programs is beyond me, when they all do the same thing of reassigning a key. There seems to be a lack of refinement throughout, and it leaves a more negative impression. Tesoro can do much better with their software, and it completely pales in comparison to other brands like Turtle Beach and SteelSeries.
If you ask me where the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum lies on a scale of being a great peripheral or a bad one, it ends up being more so in the middle. On paper, it hits many of the right notes. It offers Kailh switches, which has a good feel and a quoted longer life span than Cherry MX switches. Full RGB backlighting in a whole whack of colors is also present with many different lighting modes too. The lights are evenly lit and bright enough in broad daylight to be seen. In terms of looks, the Tesoro Excalibur has a refreshingly clean design compared to their other keyboards. I am happy to see the multiple profiles and full NKRO over USB. Typing on it is an excellent experience, and the Kailh switches are adequate in providing a solid mechanical feel. However, I do have some irks about the keyboard. While it is sturdy for the most part, the plastic creaking noises from the frame raise questions about build quality. Tesoro's lack of included accessories like a wrist rest makes me wanting more. However, the main issue I have with the Excalibur Spectrum is the software utility. Tesoro really needs to simplify their software, as the Excalibur Spectrum's utility is frustrating to use. Whether it is the numerous error sounds that come out for no reason, or the unintuitive layout altogether, Tesoro just needs to clean it up, just like they did with the design of the Excalibur Spectrum. Thankfully, its usage is not mandatory for the use of the keyboard, and the quick macro recording helps in this regard too. However, if you want to get a bit more custom with your lighting or profiles, you will have to endure the program. With all this in mind, the Excalibur Spectrum is still a very good keyboard. At a retail price of around $120 USD for a fully backlight RGB keyboard, you are getting quite a bit of bang for your buck, especially if color is your thing. Even with the kinks in the software, the Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum may not be as mighty or blinding as the sword, but it is still one bright keyboard.
Tesoro provided this product to APH Networks for the purpose of evaluation.
APH Review Focus Summary:
8/10 means Definitely a very good product with drawbacks that are not likely going to matter to the end user.
7/10 means Great product with many advantages and certain insignificant drawbacks; but should be considered before purchasing.
-- Final APH Numeric Rating is 7.1/10
Please note that the APH Numeric Rating system is based off our proprietary guidelines in the Review Focus, and should not be compared to other sites.
The Tesoro Excalibur Spectrum hacks away with a competitive price, but it could use a bit more magic and refinement, whether by Merlin or Tesoro.
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